‘I wouldn’t advise anyone to do a PhD in Ireland’

Postgraduate researchers play a vital role in universities, yet many live below minimum wage

For years PhD researchers in Ireland have been crying out for better terms and conditions. So, on the face of it, the Government decision in the budget to raise the stipend for some researchers by €500 a year should have been well-received.

Instead, it appears to have consolidated a backlash with many researchers — officially classed and generally referred to as “students” — pointing out that their stipend is below the minimum wage and that the increase won’t go near enough to covering even part of the basic and ever-rising costs of living.

A recent survey of PhD students carried out by economics researchers at Trinity College, in collaboration with the PhD Collective Action Union and the Postgraduate Workers Alliance, drew 285 responses from Irish universities.

Although respondents were self-selecting — and the survey therefore needs to be treated with a degree of caution — all those who responded said they were living under the minimum wage.

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Most agree that PhD research is a full-time job and plays an essential role in the teaching of ten of thousands of undergraduates each year. They produce research which benefits universities, industry and the State.

Yet campaigners says these academic staff are being treated as second-class citizens on precarious contracts against a backdrop of low-wage labour being used across higher education.

What is the reality on the ground? How did we get here? And what does the future hold for Ireland’s PhD researchers?

‘I’m 34, a full-time researcher, and live on €18,500 a year’

Jason McGuire (34) is going into the final year of a four-year PhD in sustainable energy modelling.

“I’m working on research related to district heating, which is important to the State’s sustainable energy plans as part of our effort to reduce carbon emissions. My work directly benefits the State,” he says.

“But I’m really struggling. I live on just €18,500 a year. I went to Denmark, one of the world-leaders in district heating, to progress the research. UCC didn’t pay for my accommodation or expenses. The Danish Energy Agency paid for accommodation but I had to get a loan — that I really cannot afford — for my expenses.”

“We should be treated as workers, but because we are students it is easy to exploit us. My department said that they couldn’t help me out with more money, and they said that they couldn’t hire me as a research assistant because they would have to advertise the job. I got two days consultancy work per week, which was really discouraged — but what choice do I have? The system of payments from the State to the universities does not always filter down to us, the researchers who are doing the work.

“I’m one of many researchers doing work for their university, the State and society but increased tax credits mean nothing to us because we are not taxed, and we have no rights as workers.

“I lived in Australia and earned good money. Now I’m a full-time researcher who has to work an extra part-time job just to try to make ends meet. I’m lucky that my partner has a house and we pay a mortgage instead of rent, but that’s not the case for most PhD candidates.

“I get anxious about being able to afford basic expenses, which affects my research and more importantly my mental health, so I wouldn’t advise anyone to do a PhD in Ireland — it’s just not worth it unless you have access to a deep pocket.”

‘I regret coming here. The stipend is so low, and living and rental costs are rising’

After completing her undergraduate degree in the United States and masters in the Netherlands, Shaakya Anand-Vembar is undertaking PhD at Trinity College Dublin’s school of medicine.

“I now regret coming here,” she says. “The stipend is so low, and living and rental costs are rising.”

She says PhD researchers are treated as employees in the Netherlands, while they are regarded as students in Ireland.

“Would I have been better off in the Netherlands? I do like here and there is a better social life but, like many locals, I might leave when I have finished up with my current obligations,” she says.

She says there are specific challenges that non-EU PhD students face.

“PhD researchers are expected to travel to conferences and present our work, or to go abroad for collaborative and experimental work,” she says.

“I have Indian citizenship, which makes it harder for me to move around the EU: non-EU PhD researchers need to renew our residence permit every year but, to travel around Europe, our Schengen visa must be valid for three months from the date we are travelling.

“So many of us simply can’t go to these conferences — and this means that western colleagues are often having to present the work of their brown and non-white colleagues who were not able to travel.

“It is a real burden for certain nationalities, like mine, in trying to carry out our work.

The Postgraduate Workers Alliance of Ireland — of which she is a member — is aiming to secure employee status and equal rights for all PhD researchers.

“If we were workers, we would have to get a wage,” she says. “As it is, I have had to get multiple part-time jobs, which takes away from my ability to concentrate on my work. If we have to extend our PhDs because we’re burnt out, or haven’t had time, that is going to cost us more.

“There’s an idea that a PhD is for the privileged, and that we chose it for passion not necessity, but oftentimes it is the only pathway to a career in research, and we are needed. The recent €500 increase is a drop in the ocean and will only apply to a minority of researchers.

“We worry about our visa status. We have no allowance for trip-ups, no consideration of sick leave or paid parental leave. It is becoming untenable.”

‘They are the backbone of academia’: views from academia on postgraduate researchers

“Postgraduate researchers are the backbone of academia,” says Dr Lisa Keating, director of research and innovation at the Irish Universities Association.

“They produce the output that benefits industry and policymakers. The State benefits from their research. Universities pay and support students through internal scholarships or other academic support.

“But we estimate that the stipends are below the living wage and would need to be closer to €27,000 for someone to have an acceptable standard of living, or €24,000 tax-free.

“Internationally, we are down at the bottom of the table, investing less than many other countries in research and development. The overall envelope of funding — which includes support for postgraduate researchers — is not enough to meet our overall ambitions.”

Prof Ron Davies, a lecturer in economics at UCD, says a PhD is a full-time job, usually undertaken by people in their mid to late 20s, or beyond, who want to be treated as professionals.

“They teach, they research, they run labs, they help us gather data: they are vital, and if we don’t pay them properly, the quality of talent will be lesser,” he says.

“My department has been able to attract students by revising our PhD programme, but the best students we get are those that come to work with specific individual staff, whereas they could get an offer of €35,000 a year to work on the Continent, where rent is also so much cheaper.

“It is costing us top talent and reinforcing class divisions. Today, the best predictor of whether someone goes on to a PhD is whether one of their parents has one.”

* This article was updated on October 19th to clarify a comment made by an interviewee